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COVID-19 cases rise in the valley as omicron moves in for the holidays

Carbondale vaccine clinic May 11, 2021_credit EB APR.jpg
Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Local resident Anabel Meza gets her second vaccine dose at an after-work clinic inside the Carbondale Fire House on May 11. Currently, some local vaccine and test providers are seeing an increase in demand for testing and booster shots as people take the omicron variant more seriously.

Omicron variant detected in Pitkin and Garfield counties

Pitkin County health officials were notified Monday that the first case of the omicron variant was detected in the county. Garfield County reported the first case of the variant on the Western Slope on Dec. 15. The local residents who tested positive for omicron had each been vaccinated with two doses, but neither had received a booster shot.

According to local health officials, the Pitkin County resident that tested positive for omicron had recently traveled to Mexico. More than half of the six people who have now tested positive for the variant in Colorado had recent travel history.

“We anticipated that it was only a matter of time before we would see the omicron variant in our county,” said Pitkin County Public Health epidemiologist Josh Vance. “Omicron is potentially already the predominant variant in the region.”

According to Vance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially projected that omicron would become the predominant variant by early to mid-January, but the latest data shows the variant has now been detected in a majority of specimens across the country, and it is now taking over delta as the most predominant variant.

Although Garfield County's positivity rate remains around 8%, Eagle and Pitkin counties are seeing their numbers of positive test results sharply increase. Eagle County’s positivity rate reached 16.4% on Monday, while Pitkin County’s positivity was hovering at 12.5%. According to Aspen Journalism's "Tracking the Curve” COVID-19 data project, the last time Eagle County reached that level was during the summer of 2020. For Pitkin County, that level was hit last winter.

“Our team remains committed to speaking with each person who tests positive for COVID-19 and conducting contact tracing in order to slow the spread as much as possible,” said Vance.

More people getting tested in Pitkin County  

With the spread of the omicron variant and holiday travel at their peak, Pitkin County is seeing an influx of people getting tested. This — combined with holiday lab and shipping schedules — is creating delays in testing turnaround times.

“Yesterday [Monday], we reported over 900 people coming through our testing sites across the Roaring Fork Valley,” said Suzuho Shimasaki, deputy director for Pitkin County Public Health. “And as of this morning, we had over 600 appointments already for today and anticipate we'll get a lot of walk-ups as well.”

According to Shimasaki and Vance, the county hasn’t seen this level of demand for testing since Labor Day weekend and, before that, March or April.

County health officials say this increase is probably being driven by people who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or were exposed to the virus, and by those who are taking extra precautions to get tested before traveling or gathering for the holidays because of the recent rise in coronavirus cases.

Limits to testing for COVID-19 variants 

Even with testing ramping up in the Roaring Fork Valley, local health officials said it could take some time for the results to reflect the reality of omicron.

Rachel Kappler, a public health nurse for Garfield County and co-leader of the county’s contact tracing team, said Colorado has one of the most advanced testing setups in the country, but many variant cases still go undetected.

She said one of the biggest reasons for this is that most rapid antigen tests don’t get sent to the state lab where the variant identification is done. And for nonrapid, PCR tests that do get sent to the state lab for sequencing, detecting a variant can take up to two weeks.

AVH vaccine 2021_credit AH APR.jpg
Alex Hager
Aspen Public Radio
A healthcare worker administering the COVID-19 vaccine at Aspen Valley Hospital earlier this year. Pitkin County’s epidemiologist Josh Vance said early research indicates that a third, booster dose works against the more transmissible omicron variant.

COVID-19 cases surge in Eagle County 

Incidence rates are high in all three counties in the Roaring Fork Valley, but as of Tuesday morning Eagle County's incidence rate was the highest in the state at more than 500 cases per 100,000 people. Pitkin County's rate nearly doubled over the weekend, reaching about 350 cases per 100,000 people Monday, while Garfield County’s incidence remained relatively stable at about 250 cases per 100,000 people.

In response to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, Eagle County commissioners are meeting this week to consider a potential mandate for indoor masks.

The county issued a public health advisory Dec. 17. County health officials say local testing is reaching its capacity because there are not enough staff to administer tests and people with symptoms are being prioritized for testing.

Eagle County last week also extended its mask requirement for schools and child-care settings until Jan. 17. Masks are still required at the Aspen School District and at the two largest public school districts in Garfield County, including the Roaring Fork School District.

Pitkin County is still the only one of the three counties with a mask mandate in place for all public, indoor spaces, including restaurants and clothing stores.

Local health officials recommend booster shots 

Although vaccinations might not prevent people from getting omicron, county health officials say vaccines and boosters will help prevent people from dying or going to the hospital.

“The big thing is it is more contagious; that has a lot of implications on our hospital capacity,” said Kappler, the public health nurse in Garfield County. “If you have something that's more contagious, it can easily overwhelm our hospital systems more because it's gonna make more people sick.”

According to Kappler, early research suggests that omicron is about two times more contagious than the delta variant. Vance, the epidemiologist, said preliminary research also indicates that a third, booster dose of Pfizer or Moderna works against the more transmissible omicron variant.

“We urge everyone to get a booster as soon as possible to protect our community, our children and our health care systems,” said Vance.

Local health officials said they expect the omicron and delta variants will continue spreading during the holidays. In addition to getting boosters, health officials recommend wearing a mask in public places and getting tested before gathering in large groups.

For a list of local testing sites and vaccination clinics, visit the Pitkin County, Eagle County and Garfield County websites.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and Morning Edition anchor. Eleanor has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, the Valley’s COVID-19 eviction and housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.